Big-Time Sports=Big-Time Woe?

By Mark Walsh — February 22, 1989 7 min read
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Plans in the works for a nationally televised high-school game of the week in boys’ football and basketball will inevitably raise the media and money stakes in high-school sports, educators and others said last week.

And the news of the proposals, which some state sports officials still had not received officially last week, has sparked acrimonious debate over the implications of “going big-time.”

The national governing body of state athletic associations, which initiated and is negotiating the cable-television deal, sought to defend itself last week against charges of greed and commercialism leveled by the press and some educators.

“I think our motives are true here,” said Warren S. Brown, assistant executive secretary of the National Federation of State High School Associations. “Our motives are to have a vehicle to promote the positive sides of high-school sports.”

In fact, significant national attention is already being focused on precollegiate athletics. A national newspaper now ranks high-school teams in several sports, a popular cable-television program focuses on school athletes, and a number of teams have played in nationally telecast games.

The federation said earlier this month that it was negotiating with cable-television networks such as the Entertainment Sports Programming Network (espn) and Sports Channel America over the possibility of televising a regular high-school football and basketball game of the week.

Mr. Brown and Sports Channel America, a national network comprising regional cable sports networks, said last week that they were close to a deal that would also include televising other sports besides football and basketball.

“It would encompass all sports,” said Daniel G. Martinsen, a spokesman for the cable network.

More ‘Exploitation’?

A storm of criticism of the federation followed news reports saying the deal would involve “millions” of dollars in rights fees that would be distributed among the schools.

The idea of big-time television dollars being injected into the high-school sports scene prompted some critics to suggest that it would lead to the same kinds of problems that are associated with many college sports programs.

“The high schools ... are getting ready to exploit their ‘student-athletes’ just the way the colleges exploit theirs: By turning them into cash cows and squeezing out every last drop of milk,” Jonathan Yardley, a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote last week.

The New York Times editorialized that TV coverage would give some coaches and players the chance to exploit their talents before a national audience of potential employers or college recruiters.

“Commercial and career motives would quickly color school schedules and educational purposes,” the Times said.

“No one has really explained where the money is going to go,” said Santee C. Ruffin, director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Interscholastic sports was not instituted to raise money. The purpose of interscholastic sports is to be another type of learning experience.”

But national federation and cable network officials denied that the rights fees for the package would involve the same sums associated with major professional and college sports packages.

“We are not waving millions and millions of dollars under people’s noses,” said Chris LaPlaca, a spokesman for espn

Mr. Brown of the federation concurred: “Certainly this isn’t a big money deal. No one in any of their dreams would think there are millions of dollars in rights fees involved.”

He declined to reveal the figures being discussed, but said that the bulk of any fees would go to the schools involved in a national telecast.

Federation officials had been quoted in early news reports on the deal as saying that state associations would receive the proceeds from games involving schools in their states, and would keep some and distribute the rest. A spokesman for the national federation said late last week that financial arrangements “have not been decided.”

Another prediction is that a regular television contract to show a bas4ketball game of the week would lead to a national tournament to determine the top team in the nation.

Money and Tournaments

Mike Lardner, a vice president with Sports Channel America, has been quoted as saying that a “natural conclusion” of the television deal would be a national final-four basketball tournament, similar to that of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

“The way is being paved,” said Mr. Ruffin of the secondary-school principals’ association. “We are concerned that this is the first step toward a national high-school basketball tournament. That has to mean more time out of the classroom.”

But the national federation vigorously denied that there has been any discussion of a national tournament or championship, which its membership voted down in 1979. Most state athletic associations remain opposed to the idea, Mr. Brown said.

‘Totally Opposed’

“We would be totally opposed to any national tournament,” said Bailey M. Marshall, director of the Texas University Interscholastic League, the state athletic association. Mr. Marshall was one of several state sports leaders who said last week that they had not heard of the television proposal until contacted by a reporter.

L.L. Astroth, executive secretary of the Illinois High School Association, said a national championship would be problematic because of differing game and eligibility rules among the states and the hardship it would impose on students.

“Why is it necessary? It certainly would be an encroachment on school time,” he said.

But the idea has been fueled by support from coaches of some of the top basketball teams in the nation.

“If we were only talking about playing two more basketball games, it would be a nice thing,” said Bob Hurley, basketball coach of St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, N.J., which is ranked No. 1 in the nation in a weekly poll published by USA Today.

Before ‘the Whole Country’

The growth in the number of national surveys of top teams has also been cited as contributing to the rising interest in high-school sports. USA Today publishes rankings for football, boys’ and girls’ basketball, and--starting this spring--baseball.

“The reaction has been very favorable,” said Dave Krider, a consulting editor to the national paper who compiles the boys’ basketball rankings. The listings have “put the high-school athlete in front of the whole country every day.”

St. Anthony, which has a 25-0 record this season and has won 43 games in a row, is one of the elite teams that has already appeared in games televised by cable and has been wooed to prestigious holiday tournaments, where it has faced other top-ranked teams.

“We have had five televised games this year,” said Mr. Hurley, a probation officer when he is not coaching the St. Anthony team. “We haven’t seen anything detrimental to the kids. They were tremendously excited about the chance to play on TV.”

“As for the finances,” he added, “money made on the games will never filter down and affect the kids. At least not at St. Anthony’s.”

Local Deals Common

In fact, appearing on television is not unusual for many high-school athletes, since many state athletic associations have deals with local stations to televise championship tournaments in football, basketball, and other sports.

The rights fees paid for these telecasts vary widely, from $25,000 for the top-class football championship game in Texas, to a three-year, $1.58-million contract between a Minneapolis television station and the Minnesota State High School League for rights to the state hockey tournament.

“I think that is probably the largest rights fee in the nation” for any high-school championship tournament, said David V. Stead, executive director of the Minnesota league.

Increasingly, some of the championship games are being shown on national cable television, as are other occasional high-school athletic contests. Espn has shown the championship games of the Minnesota hockey tournament, the Indiana state basketball finals, and the Texas football championship.

The cable network is also home to “Scholastic Sports America,” a half-hour weekly program that focuses on top precollegiate athletes, stellar teams, and issues such as steroid and drug use. The program is now in its third season.

“We are the only national weekly program devoted to high-school sports,” said Dennis Deninger, the producer. “High-school sports has the largest level of participation and the largest level of fan interest in the country. It’s grassroots America at play. We are covering it and now others are realizing it is interesting.”


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